Roman Fever Themes

The three main themes in “Roman Fever” are friendship, rivalry, and love and passion.

  • Friendship: Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been friends since they first met as young women in Rome, but their relationship is complicated by the fact that they are also rivals.
  • Rivalry: The rivalry between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley is expressed subtly and sometimes directly through their thoughts and actions.
  • Love and passion: Though Mrs. Slade considers herself more passionate than her friend, it is Mrs. Ansley who reveals hidden depths of passion in her confession of her night with Delphin Slade.


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Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been friends since they first met as young women in Rome, when Alida (Mrs. Slade) was engaged to Delphin Slade. This friendship forms the enduring tie between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley. However, their friendship is undercut by the deeper, hostile feelings they have for each other, feelings that they hardly dare to admit. Because each has something to hide about the early days of their friendship, they have not been honest with each other in their friendship.

In addition, their friendship has not been very intimate, despite their similar backgrounds and close proximity to each other on same street in New York. Mrs. Slade, in particular, strongly dislikes Mrs. Ansley, because of Mrs. Ansley's love for Delphin. She has made fun of Mrs. Ansley to their mutual friends, and she believes that Mrs. Ansley has led a much duller life than she and Delphin. At the same time, however, she cannot shake her envy of Mrs. Ansley. Mrs. Ansley, on the other hand, believes that ‘‘Alida Slade's awfully brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks.’’ She also believes that Mrs. Slade must be disappointed with her life, alluding to undisclosed failures and mistakes.

The competitive nature of their friendship reaches a climax one afternoon in Rome. As Mrs. Slade views the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome, she cannot help but remember the anger she felt at Grace's (Mrs. Ansley's) love at the time for her fiance. She confesses, after 25 years, that she had lured Grace to the Colosseum by forging a note from Delphin. Mrs. Ansley's repsonse to this confession that Barbara is Delphin's child completely alters the relationship between the women.

Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been rivals throughout their long friendship. Sometimes this rivalry is expressed subtly, as when Mrs. Ansley says that the view upon the Palatine ruins will always be the most beautiful view in the world "to me," as if she alone is privy to the glories of Rome. Sometimes the rivalry is expressed directly through the women's thoughts. For example, Mrs. Slade compares herself directly to Mrs. Ansley. She believes that her widowhood is more difficult than Mrs. Ansley's widowhood, for she had led a full, active life as the wife of an international corporate lawyer, while Mrs. Ansley and her husband were more of "museum specimens of old New York,'' or in even less kind terms, "nullities.'' Mrs. Slade also admits to envying her friend, a habit that she developed long ago.

The cause of this barely acknowledged rivalry becomes clear as the story develops. Mrs. Slade has never gotten over the fact that Grace (Mrs. Ansley) had fallen in love with her fiance Delphin Slade, and had gone to the Colosseum to meet him.

The rivalry between these women runs very deep. At one point, Mrs. Slade implies a desire for her friend's death. When she brings up their past adventures in Rome, she refers to Mrs. Ansley's great aunt, a woman who sent her sister to the Forum because they were in love with the same man—the sister caught malaria that night and died.

Love and Passion
Mrs. Slade considers herself more dramatic and passionate than Mrs. Ansley. She believes that she had contributed as much as her husband to ‘‘the making of the exceptional couple they were.’’ She also values the quality of being dynamic, and admits that she has ‘‘always wanted a brilliant daughter.’’ However, neither Mrs. Slade's words nor her actions seem to reveal great depths of love or passion she felt for her husband...

(This entire section contains 733 words.)

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or her daughter. Her greatest passion seems to have been for her late son, whose death made her feel "agony." But she blocks out this feeling, because the "thought of the boy had become unbearable.’’ Finally, the life that Mrs. Slade now leads seems to be one of order, even if she does not embrace such order.

Ironically, Mrs. Ansley emerges as the more passionate of the two women. Although she seems to be involved in more mundane activities, such as knitting and playing bridge, her revelation of the night that she spent with Delphin at the Colosseum demonstrates that she is capable of hidden depths of passion. Living across the street from Delphin for twenty-five years and raising his child suggest that she is capable of enduring love as well.

Themes and Meanings

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The title of the story refers to malarial fever, which was prevalent in Rome before the draining of the swamps around the early nineteenth century. This fever was much feared by American tourists, especially those who had young, fragile daughters who might succumb to the ravages of the disease. The chances of contracting the disease were increased greatly after dark, when the mosquitoes that spread the infection were most active. Symbolically, the title also refers to the fever pitch of the passions that were engendered in the two women when they visited Rome as nubile young girls. The surface serenity and static nature of the plot provide ironic contrast to the gradual revelation of the intense emotions that the two women experienced when they were in Rome before.

The story contrasts the abiding hate of Alida Slade with the abiding love of Grace Ansley. Alida’s cruelty and hatred, aroused by her fear that Delphin might be attracted to Grace, prompts her finally to reveal her trickery to the other woman. Her intention was clearly to humiliate the other and to bask in her triumphant superiority. Grace reveals, at Alida’s goading, that the trickery not only did not work but also was actually the impetus for the birth of Barbara, the child for whom Alida has envied Grace ever since the child was an infant.

Friendship and companionship are superficial social amenities as depicted in this story. Strong emotions are suppressed or at least concealed in favor of outward tranquillity and smooth social relations. However, the deep, hidden emotions have nevertheless driven these women to actions that shaped their lives and characters in profound ways.